Curious case of asylum patient Pedro Vasquez

Whittingham Asylum.
Whittingham Asylum.
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In a book the size and weight of a paving slab the curious case of Pedro Vasquez is contained.

He is one of many Fylde coast patients of the asylums of old. Identifying them, says Lancashire archivist Kathryn Goddard, has been “tricky.”

“These books are not easy to browse through.”

The task was undertaken as a very special assignment to commemorate World Mental Health Day on Thursday.

Pedro’s confinement in Whittingham, near Preston, is one of many haunting tales taken up by researchers and turned into a poignant play - Telling Lives penned by Dr Eric Northey - presented at Lancaster Library on Thursday and Lancashire Archives Office on Friday. Both performances start at 6.30pm.

That’s the closest the play comes to Pedro’s adopted home town Lytham.

Pedro was a long way from home. He was born in Peru, the son of diplomat Don Santiago Vasquez of Yquitos Peru, although the contact in case of death was listed as Messrs Kahn and Polack, lawyers of Paris.

The massive tomes at Lancashire Archives are testimony to the tragic stories of those who passed to and through the county’s public lunatic asylums - as Whittingham and Lancaster Moor were known before becoming identified as mental hospitals. Prestwich also admitted local patients.

Pedro was admitted to Whittingham in November 1906 after an attack of “acute mania” lasted for 24 hours. Six months later he was still at Whittingham.

The 18-year-old had only attended the Catholic Collegiate School, Stamford House, at West Beach, Lytham, for months.

His admission records include a statement from schoolmaster Nicholas Jones who reported: “He has attacks of great excitement when he struggles and fights with superhuman strength and it takes five men to hold him down - I had to tie his legs together.”

Fellow pupil Henry Rojas, 16, stated: “He tore his shirt open with his teeth and also with his hands – he said he would throw himself through the window and struggled to get to the window to throw himself out.”

This was attributed to “overstudy”.

Archivist Kathryn has read between the lines. She says: “Poor Pedro must have felt very isolated so far from his home and we have no knowledge of whether he was fluent in English or not. Finding himself at Whittingham must have been terrifying.

“He only appears in three documents within the Whittingham Asylum collection, the photograph album of inmates, a reception order detailing his arrival at the institution, and a further register which tells us that as of April 1, 1907 he was still there, described as ‘quiet and natural in his conduct’ but sadly ‘not improved’.

“He was transferred to the private patients list and this is where we lose him. He is not on the 1911 census and I cannot find his death registered in Britain so perhaps we can hope that he returned home to Peru.”

The files also contain notes on marine fireman Thomas Cocoa who came all the way from Constantinople to Lancashire having been identified by the British consul there as an “insane British seaman.”

Kathryn explains: “Whittingham, of all the public asylums in Lancashire, tended to be where they sent the people whose costs were likely to be troublesome to recover.

“Generally the local Poor Law Union was billed for upkeep; in Mr Cocoa’s case as in many others there were likely to be investigations to discover where he was from, who should pay, and whether it was worthwhile pursuing the costs.

“The use of the profile/full face photos is interesting; whether it was to do with identifying escaped inmates or an interest in phrenology as it related to mental illness we’re not quite sure.”

But researchers know Mr Cocoa died in Whittingham in 1917.

Specialist researcher and playwright Northey says such stories are surprisingly common. His play brings to life the stories of patients and staff in the huge asylums of 19th century Lancashire.

Eric, who has battled depression himself, was inspired by photographs and records of asylum patients discovered in local archives.

“These are amazing documents. They’re the size and weight of paving slabs and contain photographs, personal and medical details, and the intimate tales of thousands of patients.

“Both patients and staff had hard lives, but in many cases, they were lives courageously lived.”

He says the two big asylums covering the Fylde were Whittingham, which opened in 1873 at Goosnargh, and Lancaster Moor, Lancashire’s first county asylum, which opened in 1816. The Lancaster site is now being redeveloped for housing.

Eric adds: “Each county had to create an asylum after the 1845 Act. It was influenced by a Yorkshire Quaker William Tuke in the 1790s who set up a retreat after finding one of his parishioners chained to a wall naked in her own faeces. It changed attitudes. There was less restraint, patients were talked to quietly and clearly, no force used at all. They also found three good meals a day improved people’s lives enormously.

“The Victorians took all that on board and created beautiful places, architecturally stunning, great Gothic buildings by design. Everybody had a job if they could possibly work, and it became a high status job with good pay for the medics of the age.

“We would never afford such an approach today.

“It wasn’t what I expected to find as an archivist with an interest in mental health.

“The stories were still terrible but the attitudes until the First World War were humane and cordial. Patients got good treatment. One policy was that anybody who died had someone with them - when you think of what happens in care today you can’t help but think there are some lessons there.

“I even found evidence that the inspection system was better, the superintendent had to visit unannounced many times a year.

“There were matrons and senior nurses and a sense of discipline. It must have been a difficult job as it’s hard to imagine how medics and staff calmed people down without the drugs used today or restraints.

“I think they had more staff than many facilities today. That changed with the First World War. But it was a genuine eye opener, I thought I’d be turning pages on miserable stories, instead I found a lot of compassion.

“The First World War’s impact on asylum life was devastating. Doctors got drafted, good nurses volunteered. At Whittingham and Lancaster Moor there was huge pressure on male staff to join up - almost like the Pals’ regiments.

“It brings it home to audiences. We regularly get a collective gasp when one of the ‘patients’ mentions having died in 1963 - as members of the audience realise it wasn’t so long ago. I’ve met people who visited friends and loved ones in the asylums often at the end of their lives.”

The team also found death records for Prestwich which accommodated ‘pauper lunatics’.

“They were buried 10 deep in a mass grave, a great big pit, at Prestwich’s St Mary’s Church. “On world mental health day we will read the names of the 5,000 pauper lunatics buried there.”

They include Lily Handley, admitted when pregnant, her baby later taken away. She suffered post puerperal melancholia - an extreme form of post natal depression.

“She was a hauntingly beautiful woman,” adds Eric. “The reason for admission is stated as ‘disappointed in love.’ She never recovered from that terrible event. Three years later her face is ravaged.

“She ended up in that mass grave in 1943.”

l For details call Lancashire Archives on 01772 533039 or email